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Wilson's Border Tales
The Irish Reaper


Some years ago, I was proceeding from Runcorn to Manchester, in one of the passage-boats which ply upon the Duke of Bridgewater’s canal. There could not be less than a hundred passengers, and they were of as motley a description as the imagination of a man could conceive even in a dream. The boats exactly resemble a long, low, flat-roofed wooden house; but sufficiently lofty for a middle sized person to stand erect between the floor and the roof, or rather the deck. At one end sat about a dozen Primitive Methodists, alternately reading passages of Scripture, or bursting forth, at the extreme pitch of their voice, into a squall of music, singing hymn upon hymn, till my very ears ached, and the timbers of the boat might have started. Near them sat a number of young, rosy checked Welshmen, staring at the vocalists with a look of wondering vacancy, that the goats on their own mountains could not have surpassed. There were, also, manufacturers’ wives and children returning from a seven days’ visit to Runcorn, for the benefit of a salt water dip in the Mersey; and six or eight prim, sober, sleek, silent, well dressed Quakers; with a more than sprinkling of the boys of the Emerald Isle. The loud laugh of one of them was ever and anon heard above the shrill music of the Ranters. He was about five feet seven inches high, and exceedingly strong and well made. He wore an old greatcoat, of a yellowish blanket colour, and a hat, the crown of which had fallen in with service, and its brim was equally turned up before and behind, and on both sides. His feet were thrust into a pair of brogues of true Irish manufacture, which, with a pair of coarse blue worsted stockings and corduroy inexpressibles, completed his outward man. He carried an apparently empty sack under his arm, and was surrounded by about a dozen of his countrymen, who seemed to regard him as an oracle, heartily echoing back his boisterous laughter, and exclaiming—"Well done, Mister M’Carthy!—faith and it’s you that’s your mother’s own son, at my rate."

O’Connell had sailed from Liverpool on the previous day, and his countrymen were discussing his political merits.

"Why, bad luck to ye," exclaimed our hero with the great coat, in answer to one who had held forth in praise of the counsellor; "and is it you, Mick Behan, that says every man in Ireland should pay the O’Connell rint?—but I’ll tell you a bit of a parable, as father O’Shee says, and a parable too, of my own natural mother’s making. ‘Larry,’ says she to me, ‘Larry M’Carthy, don’t be after planting those big potatoes for seed; ‘for they’ve a hole in their heart a little Christian might slape in!’"

"You’re no better than a Sassenach, Larry," interrupted the aforesaid Mick; "can’t you spake your maneing like a man if you have any maneing at all, at all."

This was like to have ended in an Irish row in reality—though the majority evidently sided with Mister Larry M’Carthy, not because they agreed with him in opinion, but because, as afterwards appeared, he was their master or employer. The disputants paused for a moment, and a loud groan, as if from one in great bodily pain, mingled with the wailings of a woman, was heard from the farther corner of the boat. Larry turned round, to use his own expression, "like a flash of lightning," and the next moment he stood by the side of the sufferer, who was a tall, bony looking figure; but save the skin that covered them, there was little of his mortal man but the bones left. It was only necessary to look on his features, wasted as they were, to tell that he too, was an Irish man. A young wife sat beside him, whose countenance resembled beauty personifying sorrow; she had a child at her breast, and two others, the eldest not more than five years of age, stood by her knee. Larry looked upon the group, and his heart was touched.

"Och! and what may be ailing ye, countryman?" said he; "sure and ye wouldn’t be after dying among friends, would ye?"

"Ohon! and is it a friend that ye would be asking after my own Patrick?" replied the poor wife; "sure then and he is ill, and we’re all ill togidder; and it is six blessed months since he earned the bridth of tinpinny. Oh! blackness on the day that the rheumatis came on him—"

"Sure now and is that all," interrupted Larry; "and belike the doctors have been chating you; for I tell you honey, and you too, Patrick, those ‘natomy chaps know no more about the rheumatis than holy Solomon knew about stame boats. But belike I’m the lad that disn’t know neither; but, maybe your chating yoursilf if ye think so. I’ll tell ye what it is; the rheumatis is a wandering wind between the flesh and the bone; and, more than that, there is no way to cure it, but to squaze it out at the ends of the fingers or toes."

"Oh! my childer’s sorrow on it thin!" replied the suffering man’s wife; "but more and above the rheumatis, Patrick got his leg broke last Fibruary—"

"Ay, splintered honey," added the husband; "and the doctors, bad luck be wid them, can’t make nothing on’t, and I am now going to the great Salford bone doctor."

"And maybe, he won’t be curing the bit bone without the money," said Larry, with an expression of sympathy.

The sufferer shook his head, and was silent; his wife burst into tears,

"I will work, I will beg, I will die for my Patrick," she exclaimed, and pressed the child closer to her breast.

"Ye had better be barring the dying, honey," returned Larry; "and wouldn’t a raffle think ye, among friends, be more gintale than begging among strangers?"

"Obon! and is it friends you say?" replied she.

"Yes sure, and it is friends that I say," answered Larry, "and a raffle is what no gentleman need be ashamed on."

The boat at this moment stopped opposite an inn at the side of the canal, Larry borrowed a quart measure from the skipper, and sprang ashore. In a few minutes he returned with a quantity of rum, and handing it first to the wife, and then to her lame husband, said—"Come, warm up thy ould bones with a drop of the cratur.’ He called the rest of his countrymen around him, and handed the liquor to each. When gathered together, there might be about sixteen or eighteen of them in all.

"Arrah now, and these are all my men," said Mister Larry M’Carthy, with a look of comical consequence, to his infirm countryman; "and where would you be finding better? We are gone up to a bit of work in Lancashire; for the Inglish are no better than born childer at our work; [Larry and his countrymen were all navigators, as they are called, or rather excavators, employed in digging canals, railways, docks, &c.] and," raising the liquor to his head, he added, "here’s the Holy Virgin be with us, countryman, and better luck to your bad leg; and should it ever be mended at all—though you mayn’t be good for much at hood work iny more, you have still a stout bone for a barrow—and you won’t be forgetting to ask for Larry M’Carthy. And now, boys," continued he, turning to his workmen, "here is this poor man, and more than this, I’m saying, our own lawful countryman, with the rheumatis and a broken leg, and his wife too, as you see, and those three little cherubims, all starving, to be sure, and he going to the doctor’s without a penny! Sure you won’t disgrace ould Ireland—just look at the childer—and I say that a raffle is the gintale way of doing the thing."

So saying, he thrust his hand into his pocket, and pulled out a small canvass bag well filled with silver, and tied round the mouth with a strong cord. He took off his indescribable brown hat; he threw in a piece or two of silver, and went round, shaking it among his countrymen. Each took out a bag similar to Larry’s, and threw his mite into the hat. He then, without counting them, emptied its contents into the lap of the poor woman; and I should think, from their appearance, they must have amounted to thirty or forty shillings. She burst into tears. The lame man grasped his hand, and endeavoured to thank him,

"Don’t be after spakeing," said Larry; "did you think we warn’t Christians?"

Such was the Irish raffle. Larry instantly resumed his jokes, his jests, and his arguments; but I could do nothing during the rest of the passage, but think of the good Samaritan, and admire Mister Larry M’Carthy.

In the September of 1834, I was wandering by the side of a country churchyard, situated near the banks of the Tyne. The sun had gone down, and the twilight was falling grey upon the graves. I saw a poor looking man, whose garments fluttered in tatters with the evening breeze, and who, by his appearance, seemed to be an Irish reaper, rise from among the tombs. He repeatedly drew the sleeve of his coat across his eyes, and I could hear him sobbing heavily, as though his heart would burst. As we approached each other, I discovered that he was my old canal boat companion, the then merry and kind hearted Larry M’Carthy; but no more like the Larry I had then seen him, than a funeral to a bridal.

His frame was wasted to a skeleton, and hunger and misery glistened in his eyes together.

"Ha!" said I, accosting him, "is it possible that sorrow can have laid its heavy hand upon the light heart of Larry M’Carthy?"

"Sure," said he, drying away the tears that ran down his sun and want worn cheeks, "and it is true, and too true, and heavy is the hand, sure enough; but not so heavy as it should be, or it would be weighing me into that grave." He pointed to the grave I had seen him leave, and added, "But how do you know me sir—and who tould ye my name—as I don’t know yours?—for sure, and mine is Larry M’Carthy, as my father and mother, and his riverence, wid my natural sponsors to boot, all, every one of thim, say and affirm."

I reminded him of the canal boat and the raffle, and inquired the cause of his distress, and his visit to the grave.

"Arrah, master," said he, "and you touch a sore place when you ask me to tell it. Perhaps you don’t know—for how should you—that not long after the time you spake of in the canal boat, I came down to what they call the Borders here, to a bit of navigating work that was to be a long job. I lodged wid a widow—a dacent ould woman, that had a daughter they called Mary—and och! you may be thinking that ever Mary had an equal, but it’s wrong that ye are if ye think so. Her eyes were like drops of dew upon the shamrock; and although she was not Irish but Scotch, it was all one; for ye know the Scotch and Irish are one man’s childer. But at iny rate, she had a true Irish heart; and but for the sae or the channel, as they call it, she would have been Irish as well as me. The more I saw of Mary, I loved her the more—better than a bird loves the green tree. She loved me too, and we were married. The ould woman died a few weeks before Mary presented me with two little Larrys. I might have called them both Larry; for they were as like each other as your two eyes, and both of them as like me too, as any two stars in the blessed firmament are like each other, where nobody can see a difference.

Mary made the best wife in Christendom; and when our little cherubs began to run about our knees, and to lisp and spake to us, a thousand times have I clasped Mary to my breast, and blessed her as though my heart would burst with joy. ‘Sure,’ I used to say, ‘what would my own mother have said, had her ould eyes been witness to the happiness of her son, Larry M’Carthy?"

"But often the thought came staleing over me that my happiness was too like a drame to last long; and sure and it was a drame, and a short one too. A cruel, mortal fever came to the village, and who should it seize upon but my little darlints. It was hard to see them dying together, and my Mary wept her bright eyes blind over them. But bad luck was upon me. The ‘potecary tould us how our lovely childer would die; and on the very day that he said so, the wife that was dearer to me than ould Ireland to Saint Patrick, lay down on the bed beside them—and och, sir! before another sun looked in at our window, a dying mother lay between her dead childer. I wished that I might die too; and within three days I followed my wife and my little ones together to the same grave. It was this arm that lowered them into the cold earth—into the narrow house—and sure it has been weak as a child’s since. My strength was buried in their grave. I have wrought but little since; for I cannot. I have no home now; and I take a light job anywhere when it comes in my way. Every year, at reaping time, I visit their grave, and bring with me a bit shamrock to place over it, and that it may be a mark where to bury me, should I die here, as I hope I will."

Within ten days after this, I beheld the body of the once lively and generous hearted Larry M’Carthy consigned to the grave, by the side of his wife and children.


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